Playwright Katy Warner’s YA debut depicts the tightening grip of a new totalitarian regime and the effect of that on a teenage girl, Santee Quinn. When we meet Santee, the government already has a stranglehold on the city where she lives: she is running to make curfew, worried about the neighbours reporting her. She knows all too well how easy it is to be labelled a Threat, and the consequences: her own father was taken to prison for speaking out against the government, and neither Santee nor her mother and sister have seen him since.
In Santee’s city, an unspecified location that feels Australian, citizens give up freedom in exchange for safety—or the perception of it. According to the official narrative, there are Threats everywhere, and choppers, drones and Units of heavily-armed, thuggish police are deployed to deal with them. Good Citizens keep curfew and watch the government-endorsed news every night as they are obliged to do, and reply ‘Our Leader’ when head thug Magnus Varick addresses them through the TV. Most of all, they do not speak out.
Warner effectively illustrates the workings of government spin and the power of misinformation, and a strength of this book is the way it shows the incremental encroachment of restrictions in a society, the process of giving up small freedoms one by one, adjusting each time to a new normal, until you have no freedom at all. As the story begins, Santee is worried about getting into trouble with her mum as much as she is about the neighbours. There are other remaining shreds of a recognisable world: she sees a psychologist about her outbursts of violent anger, and has a crush on Z, the cute new boy at school. She also ignores her mum’s attempt to ground her, driving with Z to a nature spot on the outskirts of the city. When Z’s car packs up they are forced to stay out overnight; in the morning, Santee finds herself cut off from her family by a new wall dividing the city.
This is a book with a lot of thematic depth, although the drama is unevenly handled. Santee herself is a believable teenager, but often not a very likeable one. On the one hand, it’s always refreshing to see a flawed female protagonist who expresses anger. On the other—if we accept that a central feature of the novel is a transformation of character through experience—Santee’s transformation is not as coherent or convincing as it might be. She is reactive for a great deal of the novel, giving the story a meandering, directionless feel at times. Her inner dialogue is overwritten at high dramatic moments, which not only dilutes any sense of urgency but allows her relentless social insecurity and tendency for self-absorption to become wearing. A disinclination to let events speak for themselves makes for a lack of meaningful pauses in which the effect of the bigger events can sink in.
Warner displays an impressive knack for writing the nuances of human relationships, although some key secondary characters—such as Z’s little sister Mila—get a more two-dimensional treatment. This can undermine some of the book’s potentially more moving moments. Mila is idealised, somewhat bizarrely, as a gifted mini-adult that older characters can lean on, weakening a later attempt to highlight her vulnerability for emotional and thematic effect. Family friend Pip, and indeed Z himself, seem to have few personal needs in contrast to troubled Santee, in whom they see qualities that it is not always possible for the reader to discern.
However, the shift of a fragile new totalitarian system into a madness that pushes citizens over the edge, into risking their lives to fight it, is something the book explores in depth and it’s here that Santee at last finds a more proactive role to play. When it comes to curtailment of freedom, Everywhere, Everything, Everyone asks: how much is too much? The wall is too much, but by the time it goes up, it’s too late for people who have already given up their all their power—or have they?
Everywhere, Everything, Everyone by Katy Warner
Publisher: Hardie Grant Egmont
Publication date: August 2019